It has been one crazy year in the world of natural resources in the Florida panhandle. I guess the top stories would be the red tide and, of course, Hurricane Michael. Both had an impact environmentally and economically in the area.
Dead fish line the beaches of the Florida Panhandle after a coast wide red tide event in October of 2015.
Photo: Randy Robinson
We did not see the red tide in the panhandle until late summer. The folks in southwest Florida had been dealing with it since late winter. Down there, large fish kills were driving away tourists and halting the charter fishing industry. People began canceling their hotel reservations and moving to the east coast of the state, which eventually had red tide as well. One report showed a 6% decrease in tourism for that region, may have been more. It was certainly devastating and there is now a bill in U.S. congress to fund red tide research and monitoring. They are wanting to be able to predict them better, and possibly reduce their impacts.
Here in the panhandle the economic impact was not as large. One, it came later in the year – beyond our busy season, and two Hurricane Michael occurred, which had a far greater environmental and economic impact. That said, FWC will continue to monitor for red tide and hope it will not be a story this year.
Hurricane Michael was huge as far as environmental and economic impacts for the natural resources in the region. Charter captains either had no boats, no crew, no marina, or no customers – in some cases, all of the above, and business suffered. For some fishing interest, we were past the closed season but for divers, and other fishing interest, the loss was definitely felt.
It was no different for the commercial fishing industry. In addition to boat, crew, and marina issues, oyster cages in the Apalach area were tossed up on beaches or lost all together. Product leaving the area, if you could harvest, was okay – but for those looking for local seafood in the area you had the problem with closed restaurants and seafood markets.
Here is an example of the damage to local marinas and vessels that service our local fisheries. Unseen is the economic damage to fishing crews and supporting shore base businesses such as seafood processors, bait and tackle shops, and tourism related businesses. (Photo by Allen Golden).
Above the coast, there were problems with downed trees – making commuting impossible and, in some cases, costing landowners a lot of money. Pecan orchards were hit hard, as were some of the timber interest. There were reports of livestock loose due to crushed fences from downed trees. Those they could hold on to did not have barns to put them in and feed was in low supply.
Then you had to be concerned about the quality of the water. Excessive rain equals high levels of bacteria, even in private wells there could be contamination. With time all things tend to return. Some local residents may be restoring their natural resources for some time, others may be back in business now. It was a tough hit for the area this year.
Other natural resource notes for 2018 include bear sightings. This continues to be an issue in the panhandle, particularly in Santa Rosa County. There have been manatees visiting the Big Lagoon area of Pensacola Bay during the last two years – something they do not often see. Also, in the Pensacola area has been an increase in calls about venomous snakes. Hard to say if there are more snakes than there once were, or whether they are becoming more visible, but it was a story that we will continue to watch this year.
At the 2018 FWC lionfish summit it was mentioned that lionfish are harder to find in waters shallower than 120’, this is good news. The story is not over yet but seems the harvesting we have been doing has helped. We will be having a regional lionfish workshop February 19 in Ft. Walton Beach for those interested in learning more about this issue. That will be followed the next day with a workshop on local artificial reefs. Registration information will be posted soon.
Harvested lionfish. Photo Credit: Bryan Clark
As we now look at 2019 there will certainly be new natural resource stories. There are a couple of bills recently introduced at the state level dealing with septic tank inspections, lawn fertilizer, maintaining our springs, and sewage spills designed to help improve water quality – we will see what happens with those. There is much discussion on coastal resiliency and how to reduce the impacts of future hurricanes and we will continue to monitor changes in our area such as invasive species and mangrove distribution.
If you have a topic you would like to see an article about, please let us know. We hope you had a great holiday season and we look forward to a good new year.
The week prior to Halloween is officially designated as National Bat Week. In honor of this event, it’s worth considering some of the benefits bats provide to us.
Did you know there is a species of bat that lives nowhere in the world but within our state? It’s called the Florida Bonneted Bat, and occurs in only about 12-15 counties in south and central FL. These bats are so mysterious that we’re currently not even sure exactly where they occur. They are so rare that they’re listed as a federally endangered species.
The Florida Bonneted Bat lives nowhere in the world but Florida. Photo credits: Merlin Tuttle.
These bats were named for their forward-leaning ears, which they can tilt forward to cover their eyes. With a wingspan of 20 inches, they are the largest bats east of the Mississippi River: only two U.S. species are larger than they are, and these both occur out west.
We have been investigating the diet of Florida Bonneted Bats. To do this, we captured bats in specialized nets, and then collected their scat (called guano). Next, we processed the scat in a laboratory using DNA metabarcoding to determine which insect species the bats had recently consumed.
We found that the bats eat several economically important insects, including the following:
- fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda)
- lesser cornstalk borer (Elasmopalpus lignosellus)
- tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta)
- black cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon)
These insects are pests of corn, cotton, peanut, soybean, sorghum, tobacco, tomato, potato, and many other crops.
Furthermore, the bats did not eat these insect pests infrequently. In fact, 86% of the samples we examined contained at least one pest species. On average, each sample contained three pest species! This tells us that Florida Bonneted Bats should be considered IPM (Integrated Pest Management) agents.
Currently, a new student has begun investigating the diets of bats more commonly found in northern Florida, southern Georgia, and southern Alabama. By the time Bat Week 2019 rolls around we’ll have details on which insect pests these bats could eat on your property.
If you’re interested in helping bats or incorporating them into your Integrated Pest Management efforts, consider creating roosts for them (places where the bats can sleep during the day). Bats roost not only in caves, but also in cavities in trees, in dead palm fronds, and in bat houses.
The Wacissa River offers paddlers the opportunity to see north Florida unfiltered.
Being off the beaten path has many advantages. In the case of a spring-fed river, it translates to less pressure from human use and a great opportunity for those who do visit to experience the “real Florida”.
The Wacissa River, located in the southern half of Jefferson County, Florida, is near the crossroads identified as the town of Wacissa. There is a blinking light, a post office, and two small convenience stores where beer, ice and snacks can be purchased.
Access to the river is about two miles south of the blinking light on Florida 59, just after the state road veers to the southwest. The blacktop spur quickly become a dirt parking lot after passing several canoe and kayak rental businesses.
A county maintained boat landing with pick-nic tables, a manmade beach, and a tiny diving platform with a rope swing are the only signs of civilization. The cold, clear water extends to a tree line several hundred yards south of the landing with the river moving to the southeast.
The river emerges crystal clear from multiple limestone springs along the first mile and a half of the 12 mile waterway. The adjacent land is flat and subject to being swampy, especially in wet years like 2018.
The river terrain stands in contrast to the Cody Scarp just a few miles to the north. This geologic feature is the remnants of an ancient marine terrace and is hilly, rising 100 feet above the river in some spots.
Cypress, oak, pine, and other trees cover the bottomlands adjacent to the river. The river quickly enters the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area which results in a wide variety of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.
The wildlife viewing varies by season. Many migratory birds use the river’s shelter and resources on their annual trips.
Canoeing and kayaking are popular in the gentle current. Powerboats and fan boats can use the area also, but must be on constant alert for shallow spots and hidden snags.
For the adventurous paddler who wants to follow the river’s course, there is a debarkation point at Goose Pasture Campgrounds and another near St. Marks after the Wacissa merges with the Aucilla.
Be prepared when taking this journey. This is the real Florida, no fast food restaurants or convenience stores. Only clear water, big trees and the calls of birds will be found here.
Bumble bees and other pollinators often visit the vast fields of cotton flowers in north Florida’s agricultural lands. Although cotton is mainly self-pollinating, pollination by bees can increase seed-set per cotton boll. Note the pollen grains stuck on each bee. Photo by Judy Biss
Beekeeping is thriving in Panhandle Florida and the importance of honeybee health and pollination is frequently in the news. As much as 1/3 of our food supply depends on the pollinating activities of honeybees, and because of this fact, pollinator protection was formally recognized at the federal level in 2014 when the President of the United States signed the memorandum called: Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.
The goals of this policy are to increase and improve pollinator habitat for not only managed European honeybee colonies, but also native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies – all of which are vital to our nation’s economy, food production, and environmental health.
So, of the variety of pollinating insects and animals, what are some of Florida’s native pollinating bees? What do they look like and what are their characteristics? Let’s take a look at a few. Follow the links provided for additional, fascinating details. I will start with one of my favorites, because it happens to pollinate one of my favorite fruits. Blueberries!
The Southeastern blueberry bee uses buzz pollination on a blueberry plant. Photo credit: UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.
While managed honeybees can pollinate blueberries, the Southeastern blueberry bee, as well as bumblebees, are much more efficient pollinators of this crop. These bees “sonicate” the flowers to release more pollen. Sonication, or buzz pollination is caused by the bee’s high-speed wing beats vibrating the flower causing pollen to fall onto the bee. As we will see with many of our native bees, the Southeastern Blueberry bee is a solitary bee meaning it does not live in colonies like the European honeybee. The Southeastern Blueberry bee digs burrows in the ground where they lay eggs that hatch the following year to start the cycle over again.
Male blue orchard bee. Males have long antennae. Credit: Kevin Hall, BugGuide.net
Blue orchard bees are native to the United States and Canada, and are important pollinators of a variety of fruits including blueberries. They are solitary bees most active in the early spring and summer. They are part of a group of bees called mason bees that use holes or tube-like structures to nest in. Some garden supply stores now carry native bee nesting cavities such as stacks of bamboo or blocks of wood with holes of varying sizes that you can use to attract these native pollinators to your backyard.
Many native pollinating bees, such as the mason bees, are solitary in nature and can be attracted to your backyard by providing nesting habitat. Bee nesting “houses,” such as this block of wood with pre-drilled holes, are available for sale more frequently now in garden supply stores. Note the cavities that were used indicated by the mud-like plugs. Photo by Judy Biss
Nesting area of the miner bee, Anthophora abrupta Say. Photograph by Jason Graham, University of Florida.
A few years ago, our office received a call about a number of bees flying around a large pile of fill dirt in one of our local parks. It turned out to be the nesting site of these fascinating bees. These bees are solitary, yet gregarious. Solitary in that the female builds her own burrow in the ground in which to lay her egg; gregarious in that they tend to congregate together to build their individual burrows. They are pollinators of a number of plants, including fruits and vegetables.
Adult female Anthophora abrupta Say, a miner bee. Photograph by Katie Buckley, University of Florida.
Bumble bees are among the most recognizable of insects. They are large, colorful, and a wonder to watch. They are also important pollinators of both native plants and agricultural crops. Bumble bees are so effective at pollinating important food crops, they are raised commercially and sold to pollinate produce such as tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, and strawberries. Blueberries and other commercially important food crops benefit from the bumblebees’ ability to “sonicate,” or “buzz pollinate,” as described above. They are social bees forming small colonies (50 – 500 individuals) in the ground or empty cavities, which only last one season.
Leafcutting bees are a group of important native pollinators found throughout the world, including North America. In Florida, there are approximately 63 different species of leafcutting bees, one of which is Osmia lignaria listed above (Blue Orchard Bee). As the name implies, these solitary bees cut neat circles from broadleaf deciduous plants which they use to build their long tubular nests. While their leaf cutting capabilities can sometimes decrease the esthetics of some common landscape plants, their actions will not harm the plants. They are pollinators of wildflowers and many of our fruits and vegetables.
Typical leaf damage caused by leafcutting bees, Megachile spp. The bees use the leaf pieces to construct nests. Photograph by L.J. Buss, University of Florida.
Sweat bees are important pollinators for many wildflowers and fruits and vegetables, including peaches, plums, apples, pears, alfalfa and sunflower. This family of bees (Halictidae) contains one of the largest genera of bees in the world, displaying a wide range of social, nesting, physical, and foraging characteristics. In Florida, there are 44 species of sweat bees.
So, the next time you are walking in the garden, or hiking in Florida’s beautiful woodlands and pastures, slow down to catch of glimpse of these busy and critically important insect pollinators. I for one am quite grateful for those bees that help produce an abundance of food… especially blueberries!
For more information, check out the following resources:
Calhoun County Florida Wasps and Flies
Love Blueberries? Thank the Blueberry Bee!
USDA Forest Service publication: “Bee Basics—An Introduction to our Native Bees,”
UF/IFAS Entomology and FDACS Featured Creatures
The Bumble Bee – One of Florida’s Vital Pollinators
Blue Orchard Bee, Osmia lignaria Say (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Megachilidae)
North Florida buck feeding on acorns at the edge of a food plot. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
It’s that time of year when landowners, hunters, and other wildlife enthusiasts begin to plan and prepare fall and winter food plots to attract wildlife like the nice buck in the photo.
Annual food plots are expensive and labor intensive to plant every year and with that thought in mind, an option you may want to consider is planting mast producing crops around your property to improve your wildlife habitat. Mast producing species are of two types of species, “hard mast” (oaks, chestnut, hickory, chinkapin, American Beech, etc.), and “soft mast” (crabapple, persimmon, grape, apple, blackberry, pears, plums, pawpaws, etc.). There are many mast producing trees and shrubs that can be utilized and will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife species. This article will focus on two, sawtooth oak (or other oaks) and southern crabapple.
Oaks are of tremendous importance to wildlife and there are dozens of species in the United States. In many areas acorns comprise 25 to 50% of a wild turkeys diet in the fall (see photos 1, 2, and 3) and probably 50% of the whitetail deer diet as well during fall and winter. White oak acorns average around 6% crude protein versus 4.5% to 5% in red oak acorns. These acorns are also around 50% carbohydrates and 4% fat for white oak and 6% fat for red oak.
The Sawtooth Oak is in the Red Oak family and typically produces acorns annually once they are mature. The acorns are comparable to white oak acorns in terms of deer preference as compared to many other red oak species. Most red oak acorns are high in tannins reducing palatability but this does not seem to hold true for sawtooth oak. They are a very quick maturing species and will normally begin bearing around 8 years of age. The acorn production at maturity is prolific as you can see in the photo and can reach over 1,000 pounds per tree in a good year when fully mature. They can reach a mature height of 50 to 70 feet. There are two varieties of sawtooth oak, the original sawtooth and the Gobbler sawtooth oak, which has a smaller acorn that is better suited for wild turkeys. The average lifespan of the sawtooth oak is about 50 years
Photo 1 – Seventeen year old planting of sawtooth oaks in Gadsden County Florida. Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 2 – Gadsden County gobblers feeding on Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns
Photo Credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 3 – Gobbler sawtooth oak acorns in Gadsden County. Notice the smaller size compared to the regular sawtooth oak acorn which is the size of a white oak acorn.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Southern Crabapple is one of 25 species of the genus Malus that includes apples. They generally are well adapted to well drained but moist soils and medium to heavy soil types. They will grow best in a pH range of 5.5 – 6.5 and prefer full sun but will grow in partial shade as can be seen in photo 4. They are very easy to establish and produce beautiful blooms in March and April in our area as seen in photo 5. There are many other varieties of crabapples such as Dolgo that are available on the market in addition to southern and will probably work very well in north Florida. The fruit on southern crabapple is typically yellow green to green and average 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. They are relished by deer and normally fall from the tree in early October.
Photo 4 – Southern crabapple tree planted on edge of pine plantation stand. Photo taken in late March during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
Photo 5 – Showy light pink to white bloom of southern crabapple in early April during bloom.
Photo credit – Shep Eubanks UF/IFAS
A good resource publication on general principles related o this topic is Establishing and Maintaining Wildlife Food Sources.
If you are interested in planting traditional fall food plots check out this excellent article by UF/IFAS Washingon Couny Extension Agent Mark Mauldin: Now’s the Time to Start Preparing for Cool-Season Food Plots .
For more information on getting started with food plots in your county contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension Office
Written By: Laura Tiu, Holden Harris, and Alexander Fogg
It’s early morning as Dreadknot Charters speeds out of Destin Harbor towards the offshore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers Holden Harris (Graduate Research Fellow, University of Florida), Alex Fogg, (Marine Resource Coordinator, Okaloosa County), and the Dreadknot crew, Josh and Joe Livingston, ready their equipment on board. They’re working on a new method of capturing invasive lionfish: deepwater traps.
Non-containment lionfish traps being tested by the University of Florida offshore Destin, FL. Invasive lionfish are attracted to the lattice structure, then captured by netting when the trap is pulled from the sea floor. The trap may have the potential to control lionfish densities at depths not accessible by SCUBA divers. [ALEX FOGG/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
Red lionfish (Pterois volitas / P. miles) are a popular aquarium fish with striking red and white strips and graceful, butterfly-like fins. Native to the Indo-Pacific region, lionfish were introduced into the wild in the mid-1980s, likely from the release of pet lionfish into the coastal waters of SE Florida. In the early 2000s lionfish spread throughout the US eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean, before reaching the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Today, lionfish densities in the northern Gulf are higher than anywhere else in their invaded range.
Invasive lionfish negatively affect native reef communities. They consume and compete with native reef fish, including economically important snappers and groupers. Their presence has shown to drive declines in native species and diversity. Lionfish possess 18 venomous spines that appear to deter native predators. The interaction of invasive lionfish with other reef stressors – including ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution – is of concern to scientists.
Lionfish harvest by recreational and commercial divers is currently the best means of controlling their densities and minimizing their ecological impacts. Lionfish specific spearfishing tournaments have proven successful in removing large amounts in a relatively short amount of time. This year’s Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day removed almost 15,000 lionfish from the Northwest Florida waters in just two days. Lionfish is considered to be an excellent quality seafood, and they are now being targeted by a handful of commercial divers. Several Florida restaurants, seafood markets, and grocery stores chains are now regularly serving lionfish.
While diver removals can control localized lionfish densities, the problem is that lionfish also inhabit reefs much deeper than those that can be accessed by SCUBA divers. Surveys of deepwater reefs show lionfish have higher densities and larger body sizes than lionfish on shallower reefs. In the Gulf of Mexico, the highest densities of lionfish surveyed were between 150 – 300 feet. While SCUBA diving is typically limited to less than 130 feet, lionfish have been observed deeper than 1000 feet.
For the past several years, researchers have been working to develop a trap that may be able to harvest lionfish from deep water. Dr. Steve Gittings, Chief Scientist for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has spearheaded the design for a “non-containment” lionfish trap. The design works to “bait” lionfish by offering a structure that attracts them. The trap remains open while deployed on the sea floor, allowing fish to move in and out of the trap footprint. When the trap is retrieved, a netting is pulled up around
the fish inside and they are brought to the surface.
Deep water lionfish traps being tested by the University of Florida offshore Destin, FL. [ALEX FOGG/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
The researchers are headed offshore to retrieve, redeploy, and collect data on the lionfish traps. Twelve non-containment traps are currently being tested offshore NW Florida. The research is supported by a grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The study will try to answer important questions for a new method of catching lionfish: where and how can the traps be most effective? How long should they be deployed? And, is there any bycatch (accidental catch of other species)?
Recent trials have proved successful in attracting lionfish to the trap with minimal bycatch. Continued research will hone the trap design and assess how deployment and retrieval methods may increase their effectiveness. If successful in testing, lionfish traps may become permitted for use by commercial and recreational fisherman. The traps could become a key tool in our quest to control this invasive species and may even generate income while protecting the deepwater environment.
Outreach and extension support for the UF’s lionfish trap research is provided by Florida Sea Grant. For more information contact Dr. Laura Tiu, Okaloosa and Walton Counties Sea Grant Extension Agent, at email@example.com / 850-689-5850 (Okaloosa) / 850-892-8172 (Walton).